The Pudhu Vaazhvu project of the Tamil Nadu government has trained some 200 women in masonry. They have broken a stereotype, but they find that work is still hard to come by
Shivani Chaturvedi | March 24, 2017 | Chennai
When her husband died last year, 60-year-old Chakkamma was not sure whether she would be able to have some money of her own: she has a son who looks after her, but she wanted to maintain a degree of independence. Opportunity came knocking when the Tamil Nadu government, as part of its Pudhu Vaazhvu (or new livelihood) Project, funded by the World Bank, chose her Pulkattai village, some 60 km from Madurai, for training women in masonry. She had worked as a construction hand before, but that was unskilled work – fetching water, carrying bricks, or such odd jobs around the site. That would earn her about Rs 100 a day. But she knew she would be able to earn much more as a mason.
Chakkamma signed up, along with 25 other women from the village. The project aims to provide training for a livelihood as a means of poverty alleviation, but it also breaks the stereotype of masonry being a ‘male’ trade. The women faced some resistance from family members, who thought they shouldn’t be taking up the trade. Sometimes, nothing would be said, but the hostility or disdain would show. Chakkamma was up against a double prejudice: she was a woman who wanted to become a mason, and she was at an age when people usually retire from their jobs. The organisers had set an upper age limit of 50 years, but they made an exception for Chakkamma on sensing her enthusiasm.
The trainees sweated through the 45-day course, learning how to use the trowel and plumb-line, the mason’s square and the planer, the chisel and the mortar board. They learnt how to cut and lay bricks in various bonding patterns, how to mix cement, sand and water to form mortar of various consistencies, how to rake and point brickwork, how to smoothen the final coating of plaster. During training, the women were paid a daily stipend of Rs 100. Like in other certified courses, there was a theory and practical exam at the end of the course.
Shattering the stereotype and the misgivings, all the trainees fared well. In fact they exceeded the expectations of their teacher.
Rajashekaran, a master mason who trained them, says he was initially not sure if the women would have the stamina to take the standing, bending, lifting building material and the long hours of work. “It was the first time I was training women, so in the first week, I was a bit worried,” he says. “But as the days passed, I was confident they would learn the skill.” All trainees received certificates from a construction giant and the Tamil Nadu Small & Tiny Industry Association, a state government agency.
For the other 1,072 women of the village, these certified women masons are a source of pride. “They have overcome their limitations,” says Suganthi, a resident of Pulkattai. “Despite all the challenges, they have made the impossible possible.” Indeed, there were several obstacles – societal as well as practical – that came in the way of the women taking up the training. Says Mahalakshmi, who facilitated the programme in Pulkattai, “About 60 applications were received. Awareness was created among women about the nature of the work and the stress involved in masonry, after which many pulled back. They were worried about their health. Some had school-going children, so it was difficult to manage.”
Alakhjyothi, 28, says her husband and other family members did not want her to learn masonry. “But I wanted to prove that women too can lay bricks and build houses, not just remain unskilled helpers to men,” she says. The important thing for her was to take the first step, after getting her mother and grandmother to take care of her six-month-old son. She would reach the training site before 9 am, after which attendance was marked. Since she had passed her Std XII, she was made the group leader and given the task of organising the trainees, ensuring they turned up on time and so on.
Pandiammal, 30, says with pride, “My husband initially opposed the idea of women getting masonry training. He said women are not suitable for this work. But we have proved it. I have constructed a toilet in my house and my husband was appreciative.” Today, men in the village are of the opinion that these women pose a challenge to male masons. In fact, for many months now, the women masons of Pulkattai have found it difficult to get work. Some say male masons have closed ranks to ensure they don’t get work.
Chokkalingam, former head of the Pulkattai panchayat, had encouraged the women masons of his village, and after about a week of completing their training, they had been sent to Vijayanagaya Puram, a colony in the village, to construct toilets. This was a government project, and hence they were to be paid by the government. Even so they had to return. “The people there said they don’t want work to be done by women. They said this is men’s work and women may not be able to provide quality work,” says Satis, an assistant project manager with the Pudhu Vaazhvu Project.
Another reason they are unable to find work is that, since they have domestic responsibilities, women cannot travel long distances for work. Nor are they able to stay for say, a week or a month, away from home for completing a project. R Subhash, a district project manager with the project, says he has explained the difficulties to the World Bank, whose officials have suggested that the project managers take into account local conditions and create a model that would work. M Sakrapani, a livelihood skills training specialist with the project who is based in Chennai, says officials are trying to encourage builders associations to hire women masons. They are also lobbying with government to see that women masons are hired in government projects involving construction.
So far 200 women in Tamil Nadu have been trained as masons under the project. Besides the women from Madurai, these include women from Sivagangai, Virudhunagar and Tirunelveli. A male bastion is broken – but not yet. Some more barriers need to be broken before they are allowed to prove in work what their certificates say: that they are competent masons. Few male masons have such certificates.
(The story appears in the March 16-31, 2016 issue)
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